Notes from the Aga
I am a creature of habit and routine. Most days run to the same timetable unless the weather has other plans for me, which let's face it, living in scotland can often be the case. Every morning as I pull up my bedroom blind, I look for evidence of rain, those small spatters of raindrops on the window pane that tell me whether an early morning walk will be possible or not. Should the signs be favourable, I will go downstairs, put on my mud-encrusted wellingtons, watching the dried remnants of yesterday's wanderings unfurl over the kitchen floor, open my garden gate and walk down the lane towards the loch. The winding path that runs around the water's edge gently meanders through swaying grasses and open fields. In the distance the Lomond Hills stand proud in their ever-changing patchwork cloak of greens, russets and browns. Overhead the birds will be joining in the morning chorus as though offering me a private concert for one. Often I will stop on one of the bridges to pause a while, I may pull out my camera and try to capture the moment. Other times, I will simply stand and allow myself the opportunity to fully absorb the emotions that the sights and sounds are stirring inside me. There is something so magical about being out in the world before it has found it's voice.
Eventually, when my legs start to feel heavy and my nose is tingling from the bracing air, I'll turn to head home. As I walk through the door, I will begin the daily ritual of disrobing my outdoor clothing. I will put on my thick woolly socks and pass the kettle onto the stove. As a long term sufferer from raynaud's disease, I find it hard to maintain a steady temperature in my fingers and toes and so will often pull up a chair and rest my feet on the Aga door. As the residual warmth from breakfast gently stirs life back into my unforgiving bones, I will wait for the kettle to whistle. Occasionally I may pull out a recipe book in search of inspiration, other times I may even be adventurous enough to attempt a chapter of my book. But more often than not I will simply snuggle down into the chair and listen to the clock above the Aga tick away the hours and think. I am one of life's great ponderers. I think about everything, from the trivial to the profound. I can spend an entire hour wandering whether we eat enough fish or whether our duvet has the right tog count for the time of year. But just lately one question has dominated my thoughts. I live a small but important life. I end most days with a feeling of satisfaction and fulfilment. But do I keep my life intimate because I like it this way or because I am fearful of trying something new? In the years to come, when I approach the late autumn and winter of my life, will I feel as though I have done enough? Have I grasped the opportunities presented to me and left a legacy on this world?
I have always been quite fearful of this world. It started from a young age, the combination of an overly vivid imagination and parents who, due to their occupations, had seen some of the worst aspects of humanity, meant that I preferred to stay at home, where things were familiar and safe. Looking back now, I can see that they were overprotective. Unlike my friends I didn't go into London to see concerts and gigs. The very thought of having to navigate my way around the Underground filled me with absolute terror. In fact, the first time I ever went to London by myself was when I was 34 years old. One of my dearest friends from university had arranged a get together and I desperately wanted to go. Eliza, my daughter, was only six at the time and my husband, Alan, had booked the weekend off to look after her. I can still recall sitting down with him the night before as he went through the Underground map and told me which stations I would need and which lines I'd need to travel on. The trepidation I felt was extraordinary. He walked me up to Oxford Station and off I went, with his detailed notes clutched tightly in my hands. I remember about two hours into the journey he sent me a text. It simply read, 'How is my intrepid explorer doing?' and I cried. Not because I was scared or bewildered but because at that precise moment I knew. I knew that he would always be there to look after me; to keep me safe like my father used to. Even now, if I'm going on a long, unfamiliar journey, he'll go through the route, type it into my phone, then check the oil, water and tyre pressure on my car. And even though I love to go out exploring, I still don't like being too far away from home, especially if I'm on my own.
I still grieve for my parents most days. At certain times of the year, times which I particularly associate with them, the loss is so acute and intense that it can stop me in my tracks. Time is a natural healer and the grip that my grief once had on me has subsided. I can now remember them without experiencing that empty feeling expanding across my chest, constricting my ribs and lying heavy on my heart. I can smile at their old habits, their idiosyncrasies, the small things that made them unique to me. More importantly, I can now adopt those things, weave them into the daily fabric of my life and make them part of me.
I once posted on Instagram, having been asked to share 20 things about myself, that I kept my late mother's clogs by the back door. The response to this little, insignificant fact was overwhelming. I didn't need to explain why, everyone just understood. She used to keep them by the back door in her little cottage in Suffolk for when she wanted to 'peg out'. She would stuff her apron pocket full of pegs (she never kept her pegs out on line for fear they left a dirty mark on her pristine whites) slip on her clogs and carry the laundry basket out into the fresh air. Ever resourceful and a frequent forward planner, the clogs would then remain by the back door incase the heavens suddenly opened on her spotless tea towels and she needed to make an urgent dash to rescue them. And so now I do the same, feeling close to her every time I do.
As for my father, he was a man of extremes and opposites. He enjoyed the luxuries that life had to offer and was extravagant in most things. As far as he was concerned, if you could see the Christmas tree behind the presents then a state of emergency would be declared and he would trot off to Banbury to buy more gifts. And yet, as I have written before, he was never happier than when he was in the garden or his greenhouse. He dressed like a vagabond most days but liked his tea in a china cup. Despite his eccentricities though, he knew that his happiness lay in the smallest of moments, like pouring Worcestershire Sauce on his peanuts or sitting and turning the pages of his new seed catalogues. This is a moment that I have adopted for myself. In early spring I will sit with a cup of tea, looking at gardening books and deciding on the plants I'll grow in the coming months.
But I am afraid. I worry that if I stop doing these things, I will lose the last connection that I have with them. It's as though they are only accessible to me through these customs and traditions. Perhaps I believe in some strange way that their memories are only alive because of my dormancy. If I become distracted by something else, something bigger, will I still have enough space in my thoughts for them or will they simply dissolve in to the dark corners of my mind? What if I were to break the mould of domesticity and embark on new adventures, will I lose them in some way? Are my memories portable or are they rooted here in my home?
I am undoubtedly the mistress of grand plans. I recently sent my husband a bucket list of the places I'd like to visit and the things I'd like to experience before my moment on earth is over. I didn't occur to me at the time but the list was nothing more than a catalogue of daily excursions, the sorts of days out that you might read about in a Miss Marple mystery. Most of them had a literary or artistic emphasis to them, like walking on the Cobb at Lyme Regis, watching a play at The Globe, taking the train across Rannoch Moor and visiting Monet's garden at Giverny. There were however no adrenalin pumping, high risk activities. I don't want to dive out of an airplane or bungee jump off of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I don't even really want to make the climb up to Machu Picchu despite being told it is a life changing moment for all who do it. But I have to ask myself, am I choosing not to do these things because I'm frightened or because I don't feel that I actually need to? Can I really get away with experiencing so little in my life?
As I approach my mid forties, I am beginning to realise that I need very little to make me happy. I find contentment in the smallest of things. I will become more excited at the prospect of a new tea towel or a piece of pottery arriving in the post than a night out on the town. This year I grew my first ever dahlias and when they started to bloom and grow, I celebrated gleefully with a cup of tea and a handful of biscuits in the garden. Sitting by the side of them on the lawn, I lent back onto the edge of the raised bed and basked in my personal glory and satisfaction. It was an adrenaline rush made just for me and I relished it.
Then of course there are novels. I've only recently discovered Persephone books and now when I open up a parcel to see a stack of little grey-spined volumes, I feel a gentle thrill wash over me as the expectation of a new adventure takes hold. Eagerness and anticipation bewitch me and I long for bedtime when I can snuggle up and lose myself in the world of another. I am a great reader. I read everything; I am no literary snob. As I finish a book, close its pages for the last time and relive the denouement, I'm sometimes left wandering. I cannot help but compare my life to those that I read about. Am I doing enough? Am I making a contribution that is worthy of my talents or my skills?
I don't have the answer to any of these questions and I probably never will. In my heart I know that if I can leave this world knowing that I was always as honest, kind, loyal and considerate as I could be, then I will have left a legacy on those who knew me. I have always said that the most important thing in life is to love and to be loved. There are many people who don't get such chances at happiness. Perhaps by striving for more I am being ungrateful, I'm not appreciating the little things that do make up a great part of my life. For after all, it's the little things we do each day that matter like ensuring that my family do eat enough fish and that they aren't too hot or cold at night. My brother once told me, and he wasn't being morbid, that if he ever has to choose the eulogy for my funeral, he would choose the last few sentences from Middlemarch by George Eliot as he thinks they sum me up perfectly.
"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.'
If this is my legacy, then I'm doing just fine.